THE Northern Echo is to undergo the biggest change in its 137-year history. It has been decided that the paper will be produced in a handier "compact" size from Monday February 26.

It follows the successful trial of the Saturday edition of the paper being published in compact format since January last year.

Since then, the sales of The Northern Echo on Saturdays have been about two per cent higher than during the week, when the paper is still published in broadsheet format.

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A reader survey demonstrated overwhelming support for the handier size, with nearly 80 per cent saying they preferred compact and 20 per cent calling for the paper to remain broadsheet.

As a result of this extensive market research, publishing company Newsquest North- East has decided to move to the compact format six days a week.

Peter Barron, Editor of The Northern Echo for the past eight years, said: "This has not been an easy decision and it has not been taken lightly.

"The Northern Echo is an institution - one of the country's most famous provincial titles - and it has to be treated with great care and respect for its traditions.

"But the world has moved on and readers are demanding their news in an easier, more convenient format.

"Over the past eight years, and before my tenure as editor, a debate has raged about whether the paper should change its format. It is the question I am asked more than any other and the time for change is now."

With The Times, Guardian, and Independent all switching to a smaller size in recent years, only the Daily Telegraph remains as a broadsheet among the national papers. And the successful conversion of The Times was seen as key to The Northern Echo's decision.

That killed off the argument that going compact or tabloid meant moving downmarket and sacrificing quality, said Mr Barron.

He has assured readers that The Northern Echo will remain true to its principles after February 26.

"All that is changing is the size. In every other respect, The Northern Echo will be the same paper: the same unique balance of local, regional and national news; the same commitment to campaigning journalism and community involvement; and the same great columnists.

"I am very aware that it is impossible to please everyone and I know a significant number of our readers will oppose this change, but I am convinced that the paper's long-term survival in a highly competitive market is dependent on it.

"Not only is it what the majority of our existing readers want, but it also gives us a better chance of attracting a new generation of customers."

The Saturday compact edition introduced new sections: a bigger, brighter television guide; an enhanced sports supplement with racing colours; plus pull-outs for those looking for a new home or car.

When the paper goes compact six days a week, it will still feature its popular pull-outs - Football on Mondays, 7-Days on Thursdays and Local Heroes on Fridays.

And the award-winning Business Echo - currently published fortnightly - will be published every Tuesday.

After 137 years of serving the North-East and North Yorkshire, The Northern Echo is in better shape than ever.